French Tourist Industry Moves Online

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PARIS - The French tourist industry is shifting more and more resources into distance selling, specifically in going on the Internet. One reason is the introduction of the 35-hour work week in France.

As a result, the French have more leisure time and are more interested than they were in packing up and leaving more or less at a moment's notice. That's been a boost to inbound telemarketing.

One French travel agency, Voyage Auchan, has weekend packages of up to four days in the wine country which can be booked by phone on a quick turnaround basis. Tourist companies are also publishing more varied catalogs.

One company, Pronuptia, has a catalog for honeymoon destinations. Eduard Kettner has a book about hunting trips. Ferry services in Corsica and Brittany are offering tickets through the mails or phones.

Not all these efforts work. Trois Suisses, one of France's largest mail order houses, published and mailed a catalog entitled "Special Locations in France" designed to lure tourists into out-of-the-way corners. It bombed.

Boussole Bleue personalized all its travel catalogs that sold tourist products from luggage to clothes but had to abandon the practice because costs were too high and not matched by revenues.

But tourism on the Internet has really taken off, spurred, perhaps, by the fact that some travel agencies began using the Minitel -- the French online service that started out as an electronic telephone book.

Degriftour went on Minitel in 1991 and shifted to the Web five years later, becoming one of the older Web merchants in France. CEO Francis Reverse told Annie Rigoureau, editor of Catalogue's, a French direct marketing newsletter, that selling on the Web was simply cheaper.

"E-commerce is quick and reactive. We can update our electronic catalogs without delay, modify the products we sell and the price we charge for them pretty much any time. We can infinitely expand the range of our products."

In the fiscal year ended March 31, Reverse's company, which sells cut-rate tours, had sales of 580 million francs, or about $90 million, with half the revenues coming from the Minitel and half from the Internet.

Degriftour is also moving abroad. Reverse has set up Web sites in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland with all the sites localized in terms of language, price and culture. He is also into telemarketing with a toll-free number.

Half of the top 20 sites in France are devoted to tourism, according to a Benchmark Group study. On May 2, Selectour offered visitors to its new site real-time reservations on a selection of 400 flat rate voyages.

However, it appears that the boom in French travel sites is close to cresting. A Bear Stearns study of 1,000 French sites concluded that only a fifth would survive.

The reason: Ticket selling sites are being challenged by rail and air sites and by combinations of air-hotel syndicates who are offering tickets at cut-rate prices. Concentration in the Internet is proceeding apace in France, Rigoureau said.

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